Gone Home doesn’t merely leave you in an empty home and ask you to make a story. It asks you to make a family.
Warning: This article contains spoilers for Gone Home
One of the very first things you touch in Gone Home, a game that almost entirely consists of picking up, reading, moving, opening, or otherwise handling objects, is a plastic Christmas duck. Its presence is a weird little anomaly (What’s a Christmas duck anyway?). Nevertheless, like all of the objects in the Greenbriar home, it illustrates in the physical world the invisible relationships between the story’s family. Playing as Kaitlin Greenbriar, this isn’t any duck. This is your duck, your family’s quirky piece of the holiday season. The trappings of the home map out the outlines of a family remarkably, but it's your own perspectives that fill them with life.
Of course the Greenbriar family of Gone Home are undergoing their own transformation. The notes found around the house unweave a story of a mother entertaining the thought of an affair, a father wrestling with his failed career, and a daughter beginning to explore sexuality and young love, even as this means a departure from the very home you seek to explore. This is a family dealing with trauma and change, both sudden and a long time coming.
It is appropriate then that the only other reference to Christmas, besides the duck, are the lights that Sam (Kaitlin's sister) hangs around the attic entrance. She takes a family object and makes it her own, using it to establish her own space within the home, a safe space reserved for those she loves and trusts. Again, the lights are a small touch, but it is in through this tangible debris that Gone Home constructs a strong sense of family.
While the game is mostly silent, the home itself is cacophonous with the presence of the family. Each discovery, be it a concert ticket, an email, or a softly worded letter, details one side of each family member but, importantly, never the whole. Ultimately Sam, her parents, and even Kaitlin, cannot speak for themselves. Sam has her letters, but her story (and most significantly her parents’ story) are pieces of a whole, and that’s not a bad thing. Indeed, all families are held together by narratives that we construct from our own perspectives.
Director Sarah Polley explores these ideas herself in her recent documentary The Stories We Tell, which opens with an apt quote from Margaret Atwood: “When you are in the middle of a story it isn’t a story at all, but only a confusion. It’s only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all. When you’re telling it, to yourself or to someone else.” Gone Home is an exercise in participatory storytelling, the same kind of storytelling that we do ourselves to construct and negotiate the meaning of family.
What does it mean that alcohol consistently has a presence around Kaitlin’s father’s work? Is he an alcoholic? Has the new home opened up old wounds and has he turned to alcohol for solace? Is it depression or resentment that he dips into when writing? And what to make of the jumbled drawers in the family bedroom?
The act of rifling through the family’s written lives is deeply voyeuristic and intimate. It is also entirely familiar for those who when left alone at home as children would venture into their parents room in hopes of gleaning some wider truth by seeing the world -- for a moment -- from their perspective. In Gone Home, Kaitlin has the opportunity to explore her family free of their presence. As a player, you journey with Kaitlin through a process of remaking her conception of family. She rediscovers her sister just as Sam is discovering aspects of herself. The objects in the home are the pieces of their lives without her, something she has never been privy to. That process of construction, which Kaitlin performs as a temporary outsider from the family, we preform for the first time, and so we are bound up in the process.
In the stormy and seemingly haunted house, Kaitlin establishes her presence (and we along with her) by pushing away fear and embracing the feeling of familiarity. Various letters make reference to Kaitlin and her postcards from Europe also appear, reminding you that this is her home, her family. Yet at the same time, the feeling of being an outsider is very real for both player and protagonist. With each object that she encounters (simultaneously familiar yet strange -- if for no other reason than the way that the game’s excellent atmosphere operates on the player's perceptions), Kaitlin seems to say: “This is my family, but what kind of family is it?” It’s a question that the game asks you to answer (in some ways_ for yourself.
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of Gone Home is its completion. Kaitlin never finds Sam in person. She has run off with her lover, and while you might be filled with a sense of pride (your sister has escaped the same home you finally map at the game’s conclusion), she is nowhere around to celebrate. Kaitlin can offer no advice and share no love with her. While some families leave passive-aggressive notes, many families are made of arguments, laughter, and loud conversations. The repercussions of Sam’s decision will have to be addressed at some point, but for the duration of Gone Home, it's one piece of family-building that it cannot address.
That being said, the sudden ending in the attic may construct the Greenbriar family as much as anything. We know from letters that heated arguments have been had without Kaitlin having been around. Now that she has returned home, how much has Sam’s story changed yet again? What is family if not an ongoing process of construction, of spinning narratives, motivations, and possible outcomes. Gone Home doesn’t merely leave you in an empty home and ask you to make a story. It asks you to make a family.